To listen to some reports, you’d think President Obama is a stay-at-home mother hater. Here are his controversial words, from an Oct. 31 speech in Rhode Island:
“Sometimes, someone, usually mom, leaves the workplace to stay home with the kids, which then leaves her earning a lower wage for the rest of her life as a result. And that’s not a choice we want Americans to make.”
Back to the speech in just a minute.
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The decisions we make about our families become harder when there are critics looking over our shoulders telling us we’re doing it wrong. Maybe we’ve even become our own worst critics, doubting our capacity to make good choices in the face of Pinterest and blog post parents who seem to know better than us. For every opinion, there’s a blog post or Facebook post or church sermon sowing seeds of self-doubt in our minds. Let’s face it—no matter what we choose, we’re probably going to disappoint someone.
This is especially true when it comes to choices we make about our families and our careers. Because there are so many voices shouting us down, we get defensive. There are enough of them to turn even the most confident woman into a puddle of insecurity.
Because of the constant criticism all around us, we can become so enthusiastic in defending those choices (“staying at home is better because…” or “children of working parents are better off because…”) that we forget that even though we’re only trying to defend ourselves, we might inadvertently hurt someone else whose experience is different. It might be someone who appears to be making the same choices, but had a great experience growing up in a different type of household. Or it might be someone we thought was attacking our choices, who really had no such intention. Or, more likely still, there aren’t really sides at all, just people.
When I read articles like the recent Deseret News article extolling the virtues of stay-at-home mothers, I can relate to those who love it. I’ve been there. I know how it feels to want my choice to be understood and praised, and to look for hope in the moments when I felt I was losing my mind.
The problem is that blanket statements about women’s roles don’t help anyone. They reduce women (not to mention their families, their circumstances, and their choices) into caricatures and fodder for judgment, rather than the complex beings that they are.
By saying that stay-at-home mothers are happier, get financial rewards, and make their kids smarter, this Deseret News article sets up an us-vs.–them dichotomy where nobody wins. The women who are staying home feel reassured that they’re making the right decision, but at what cost? They enjoy temporary superiority, but self-aggrandizement means putting someone else beneath them.
The article might appeal to a certain segment of people who fit that mold, but it ignores everyone else. It goes to great lengths to point out that there are plenty of stay-at-home mothers. I’m glad they’re not going anywhere, and I would hope that most who have made that choice are happy with it. Even if the numbers are rising, though, that number is still only 29%. That leaves out the 71% of mothers who aren’t staying home. If you read the study referenced in the article, the title “stay-at-home-mother” doesn’t necessarily have to mean “married wife (with employed husband) who has voluntarily left the workforce,” and the not-SAHM category is even broader.
That’s exactly my point. How can we set up either-or comparison when so many mothers defy categorization? There are mothers who stay at home for a few years, then go back to work. There are mothers who work full-time and who work part-time. There are some who work at night, and some who go to school. Some freelance or do contract work. Some are looking for work. There are some who would choose a different schedule or a different role if they could, but they can’t. Most likely have different roles throughout their lives, and many don’t feel like any kind of label accurately describes their lives.
How does the working mother feel when she reads about how much better her neighbor SAHM’s kids are doing? Does this mean that her kids are destined to be fatter and stupider and less grounded than her neighbor’s? Likely not, so why do we have to make her feel bad in order to make the SAHM feel good? If we don’t like the SAHM stereotypes, it’s unfair to similarly mischaracterize working mothers in SAHMs’ defense. Women do this to each other all too often, but it seems especially ironic that this article’s extolling of one woman’s role over another comes from a man who, more likely than not, never had to make this choice or wrestle with the very real consequences of those decisions. It’s easy to create ideals from an armchair. But when we make broad generalizations such as these, we create the very stereotypes that we’re trying so hard to insist don’t apply.
How many working mothers are really selfish, cold, businesslike people who hate their children? There might be some, but I would guess they are few. The stay-at-home mother is probably neither lazy nor obsessed with soap operas. Working mothers’ children are probably not going to turn into self-absorbed, undisciplined, overweight monsters. I’d bet that stay-at-home mothers’ children are better than their stereotypes suggest, too.
Most mothers want the best for their children, and they’re doing the best they can.
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President Obama didn’t say he doesn’t think women should not have to make the choice to be stay-at-home mothers, though it’s easy to understand why people would interpret his words that way out of context. Having watched the entire speech, it seems clear to me that he meant that women who stay at home should not be financially penalized their entire lives for doing so. And I agree with that statement.
If we as a society really valued the work that mothers do, perhaps we should start encouraging one another and supporting one another as mothers rather than grabbing our pitchforks at the first sniff of a mommy war on the horizon.
We can recognize the value of our own choices without tearing down someone else’s different choices or circumstances. We can listen to each other’s stories and celebrate their differences and their similarities to our own. We can have confidence that, studies aside, every family is different, not superior or inferior. We can trust our own brains and our intuitions to help us have confidence in our decisions. We can recognize most parents think it’s important to spend time with their kids, and that that every situation comes with its own struggles.
Then we can evaluate policies on their own merits. And we can consider whether or not we should change some of the parental challenges mentioned in the speech. Should motherhood be the highest risk factor for poverty? Should we create family-friendly workplaces so that parents can spend as much time with their children as possible? Should mothers (or fathers) be punished or rewarded for taking time off from work to care for their families?
I’m hoping that sooner rather than later, instead of fighting about who does it better, we’ll see child-raising as the valuable contribution to society that it is, and then we’ll create policies that help parents everywhere.